Roberto Suro and the Washington Post are very good at what they do, but what they do is not good for America.
Their skill, as shown in the lead article in the July 13 Outlook section, is to blur our thinking about immigration policy, and to beguile us into avoiding the hard realities that face the nation.
Suro, one-time star reporter and editor at the Post and now a college professor, writes, "We divide newcomers into two categories: legal or illegal, good or bad. We hail them as Americans in the making, or brand them as aliens fit for deportation.
The article dominates the front age of the Post's weekly opinion section. There are three large boxes, two marked "Legal" and "Illegal", and a third, in the middle, with no label but a big red check in it. It is as favorable a bit of journalistic treatment that an issue can get, short of one of those highly unusual front-page editorials.
There are numerous problems with Suro's approach, hidden as they are in his skillful writing and in the editorial placement.
In the first place, our current system, flawed though it may be, does not regard immigrants as either future citizens or candidates for deportation. More accurately, if still broadly, we currently have these categories:
- immigrants who have become citizens;
- immigrants who may become citizens later;
- conditional residents who may become immigrants later;
- long-term nonimmigrants, such as treaty investors;
- short-term nonimmigrants in many subcategories, such as students and visitors;
- illegal immigrants whose presence is, in fact, tolerated; and
- illegal immigrants that even this administration wants deported.
Many of the foreign-born in one of these categories can move to another category, and such movement takes place all the time.
Suro wants to create still other categories in the general class of sojourners, or "birds of passage" in his terms; these are people who would have the right to live and work in America when and if they want, who could come and go without much regulation. Sort of like grown-up children who can live with mom and dad when they want to, and live elsewhere when the parental home gets less attractive.
Suro is right, narrowly, we do not have such a category right now, short of citizenship, but that is hardly a major public policy challenge.
Creating additional legal categories for aliens who do not necessarily want to stay in the States may help a few of them in particular situations, but Suro's proposal totally ignores the central facts that: 1) a huge portion of the world's population wants to move to the United States, and we can only accommodate a fraction of them, 2) we have far more workers, aliens and citizens, than jobs, and 3) we have not worked out a system yet to manage the illegal aliens already resident in the nation.
While it is useful to think about the unforced departures of aliens, and well as their arrivals, as Suro has done in this article, creating one or more new classes of sojourners (or nonimmigrants) will not solve our fundamental immigration problems.